Trading Futures: The Abolition of the Economy

Mickey D writes on the need to destroy the economy.

The Economy has penetrated our imaginations to the point that we identify its abstractions with society itself--even our own personalities. We engage in buying and selling when we negotiate intimacy; to accept is to "buy," to improve is to "profit." Our communities are planned real-estate ventures. Professional advice-dispensers tell us to cultivate "friendships" that will advance our careers. We increasingly confront one another as rivals; egotism is a virtue. Material success is salvation, while poverty is criminal. The bank balance from the ATM machine puts a numerical value on your human worth--maybe even whether you live or die.

What do we mean when we refer to The Economy? We instinctively link it to all our social evils -- degrading jobs, clear-cut forests, wars, cancer, teenage suicides, soaring murder rates, and so on. But before any of these problems can even be addressed, the Economy must be placated by ever more sacrifice, a process which just compounds the problems. The index of social health at the end of the evening news is the Dow Jones average, not the infant mortality rate. The Economy is our religion; its temples are the banks that tower over our decaying cities. We can't imagine a world without the Economy any more than an ecclesiastic can imagine life without a supernatural God.

Obviously, all societies must organize the material means of life. But our society inverts the relationship of means to ends and makes what should be merely a precondition for life into the meaning of life. Our economic relations are not (in Karl Polanyi's word) "embedded" in our social relationships; instead, our social relationships are subservient to The Economy. A distinct and separate sphere above and beyond other social activities, the Economy makes everything dependent on the market. Ruled solely by prices, the market can allow no other values or considerations. Culture no longer subordinates the Economy (as it should), but has become utterly subordinated to it. Polanyi has said that our "animal dependence upon food has been bared and the naked fear of starvation permitted to run loose. Our humiliating enslavement to the material, which all human culture is designed to mitigate, was deliberately made more rigorous" by the market economy.

To "economize" is an everyday compulsion in a market-dominated society which exposes the underlying false premise of economics: that whereas desires are unlimited, the means of satisfying them are not. The Economy depends on expanding dissatisfaction; as desires are fulfilled, new desires must be stimulated to keep people buying. Market economies assume that people do not have rational needs, but must be constantly dazzled by advertising--without which, the Economy would probably collapse.

Scarcity in our over-productive society is artificial; one of the economists' great accomplishments is to mystify this with scientific pretensions about "laws of supply and demand," "price mechanisms," etc. Poverty is not the result of how much wealth is available, but how it is distributed. Between one-half and one-third of humanity goes hungry while food rots in warehouses because the market is the only mode of distribution that the rich will permit. As the Somali saying has it: "Scarcity and abundance are never far apart. The rich and the poor live in the same house."

The unique autonomy of The Economy is a result of the rules of market exchange. The market divorces The Economy from society by making everyone's livelihood dependent on the precarious sale of labor. Profits become the overriding end of all human enterprise. It is catastrophic to make the fear of hunger and the quest for profit socially enforced incentives to participation in economic activity--a catastrophe which has acquired global dimensions. Based on the imperative Grow or Die, competing economic entities must constantly expand in the search for new outlets, a process which will only be exhausted by the likely death of the biosphere.

Origins of the Economy

Economics derives from the Greek word oikonomia: management of the house-hold. The distance between the ancient and modern notions of economics can be perceived if one notes the utter irrationality of applying the character Homo oeconomicus to domestic relationships, where it is still considered pathological for family members to act as self-interested competitors. For the ancient Greeks, "householding" was production for one's group's own use (autarchy, or self-sufficiency)--not for gain or money-making, which was regarded as "not natural to man" (Aristotle). Money-making was "limitless" and anti-social.

Markets have a long history. However, before capitalism, markets were always accessory to social relations (kin, tribe, religion, etc.); they did not control and regulate them. During the Middle Ages, markets were limited in time (Sundays) and place (usually outside the church). However much honored in the breach, sanctions against usury--profit-making off the material needs of others--expressed fears of the socially corrosive aspects of the market. Pre-modern marketplaces such as bazaars or agoras preserved ritual social observances, often beginning with gossip and talk, then tea, family matters, and eventually discussion of the wares on offer--produced by the seller, who took a pride in the quality of his craftsmanship--and haggling or barter. Contrast this with our experience at the Mall--the Panopticon surveillance, the anonymous, indifferent sales people, the electronic registers to calculate inflexible prices, the built-in obsolence and often poisonous products.

The self-regulated market economy has its origin in 19th century industrial capitalism which turned people (labor) and nature (land) into commodities--inanimate instruments to be bought and sold. Whereas earlier societies had preserved the access to the "commons" to ensure survival and social cohesion, capitalism organized access to the means of life through production for sale, and prices determined by market allocation. The much-venerated "freedom" of the market requires the fragmentation of community bonds.

Economics as a science emerged as the analysis of this increasingly separate and autonomous market. The ideas of the neo-classical economists promoted allegedly permanent and universal truths about humanity and society. The pursuit of material gain compelled by the market was not seen as behavior forced on people as the only possible way to earn a living, but as prudent and rational behavior. To the economists, society is nonexistent except as a bunch of people without concern for each other; improvement in economic statistics is more important than whatever social disruptions result from it; human beings are utilitarian atoms possessed by an innate "propensity to truck, barter and exchange" (as Adam Smith claimed); and material maximization and the primacy of self-interest are constants of all societies. This cynical worldview became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Trade Without Profits

Formal economics presumes that its "value-free" scientific laws must be universally applicable. It sees non-market societies as underdeveloped versions of our own. While it might be accepted that other peoples have different religious, political, or kinship systems, economic relations are considered to be immutable. Economics sees all societies as supply-demand mechanisms--not expression of lived relationships. However, anthropology can show us the unimportance of economic relationships. "We must rid ourselves of the ingrained notion that the economy is a field of experience of which human beings have necessarily always been conscious," the anthropologist Marcel Mauss said.

Anthropologists have observed among many non-industrial societies the principle of usufruct--that is, the right of anyone to borrow another's property (tools, land, etc.) if it is returned in the same condition. Because the use of this stuff benefits the entire community, the notion of individual property rights above and beyond those of the group is unknown. A glimmer of usufruct is evident in periods of social rebellion when the disenfranchised loot the granaries, temples, palaces or malls and redistribute the goods for the consumption of all. This is as old as written history--as recorded by the Sumerians during the riots in Lagash or the Egyptian peasants who rose against the nobility of the Middle Kingdom (2500 B.C.)--and as recent as last year's Los Angeles riots.

Gift economies further undermine the universality of our perverse economic notions of exchange. The American Indians of the Northwest coast stretching from Cape Mendocino in California up to Prince Williams Sound in Alaska practiced gift-giving ceremonies known as potlatch, a celebration for distributing wealth and sealing social relations. Similarly, the Massim peoples of the South Sea islands near the eastern tip of New Guinea had lavish disaccumulation festivals known as kulas. In both these institutions, gift exchange functions as part of what Mauss calls a "total social phenomenon"--economic, juridical, moral, aesthetic, religious, mythological--whose meaning cannot be adequately decribed by reducing it solely to a single economic function.

The measure of wealth among the Massim and the Northwest coast Indians is society itself--all those people who band together in a daily life in which material wealth is shared and distributed as gifts. Social prestige is inextricably linked to generosity. The purpose of the giving of gifts is to keep the gifts in circulation, and give counter-gifts--not to become the venerated acquisitions of individual owners. What comes around, goes around. Unless shared, gifts are property that perish like food, from which the word "potlatch" derives. Similarly, in the kula, the gift not re-used is considered lost, while the one that is passed along "feeds" over and over again, thus remaining abundant.

Although highly personalized, these ceremonies were not evidence of "small scale" or "primitive" economics, but were in fact consciously elaborate. The kula shows that the wider and more varied the territory, the more exotic the produce and goods. Contrary to the economists's universalization of scarcity as a permanent feature of human society, the kula is actually an exuberant display of affluence.

The kula and the potlatch were not motivated by the prospect of gain; nor was labor performed for remuneration. Despite their complexity, they thrived without administration or written records, much less money. They are examples of reciprocity and redistribution--principles not very esteemed by our culture's Survival of the Fittest outlook. Economics can offer an analysis of the junk bond market, but its is a very limited tool for understanding the face-to-face relationships of gift-based societies. The individual players in these societies are personalized, not anonymous. It is absurd to view the kula as an investment yielding interest.

The pathology of our culture's avaricious hoarding of social wealth was evident to the Indians who came into contact with Europeans. "Indian giver"--a term of abuse--was coined by New England Puritans to describe the activities of the Indians (shortly before they killed them), who often sought the return of items they had given the settlers because the purpose of the gift was to be kept in circulation among different users, not settled in the home of a private "owner."I don't want to exalt the gift economy. The exchange of gifts can be onerous and burdensome; customs can be irrational. The commodity form is potentially incipient within symbolic exchange, honoring various types of hierarchy. My sketches of the kula and the potlatch are necessarily simplistic. However, I am less interested in what the anthropologists teach us about the Massim or the Kwakiutl than what they tell us about our own society which produces, among other things, anthropolgists.

Gift-economies bespeak an ideal of value which is inextricable from the social relations in which the activity of gift-giving takes place. That the distribution of social wealth can be considered a strictly amoral enterprise (as in our market-controlled society) is the economists's Big Lie. The banishment of conscience as a social principle is seen as progess; hence the mean spiritedness of all public discourse today. Gift-giving consolidates and enhances social bonds, while market exchange sunders them. This is still observed in our own neurotic gift-giving ceremonies, especially Christmas. Adorno succinctly described the fate of the gift in our Hallmark card culture:

Real giving had its joy in imagining the joy of the receiver. It means choosing, expending time, going out of one's way, thinking of the other as a subject: the opposite of distraction. Just this hardly anyone is now able to do. At the best they give what they would have liked themselves, only a few degrees worse. The decay of giving is measured in the distressing invention of gift-articles, based on the assumption that one does not know what to give because one does not want to. This merchandise is unrelated like its buyers. It was a drug in the market from the first day. Likewise, the right to exchange the article, which signifies to the recipient: take this, its all yours, do what you like with it; if you don't want it, that's all the same to me, get something else instead. Moreover, by comparison with the embarrassment caused by ordinary presents this pure fungibility represents the more human alternative, because it at least allows the receiver to give himself a present, which is admittedly in absolute contradiction to the gift.

Human history is not a finite project: we do not have to repeat everything that has happened before, even if the past can provide a rich guide for future social innovation. I believe that it will be essential for our future to recover the authentic spirit of gift-giving. If most societies have proven susceptible to hierarchy, this can be challenged by conscious design. Capitalism may have severed (for some) archaic obligations and duties, but it has chained everyone to a new master--an invisible one at that, which pits us against one another!

The Left Embrace of the Economy

The utopian socialists called for a life which subordinates The Economy to our cultural relationships. Their legacy has been perverted by the traditional Left which protests the injustices of capitalism but has shown itself to be hopelessly mired in the economistic mentality. For all his brilliance and penetrating insight into capitalism, Marx reified the Economy by positing that the social basis for power structures derived from economic power. The historical achievement of capitalism was to strip bare the class nature of social power. Marx was thus convinced of capitalism's progressive role, even to the point of believing that English imperialism laid the foundations for socialism in rural India. The loss of the utopian ideal can be felt with painful clarity by a look at the Left today-- giving new meaning to demoralization. Appeals are strictly to bread-and-butter issues, which no matter how important, ignore the fact that most people--even hungry people--are more than just stomachs. It's no wonder that the Right has been in ascendancy for well over a decade given its focus on issues long ignored by leftists. In its dedication to a losing game of realpolitik, the Left can deliver nothing but windy exhortations for more jobs--even if that means putting police uniforms on the jobless and sending them to control the public.

Leftist schemes all share the faith that social problems can be redressed by economic means, that the economic roles in our lives--as producers and consumers--is the lever for renewal. Rather than questioning the categories of economic reason--based on abstraction, calculation and quantification--the Left enhances its prestige by equating it with the liberatory project. "Economic democracy" reinforces the market concept of humans: we are consumers of rights (bequethed from above) not social beings capable of autonomous activity.

Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel's concept of participatory economics, published as Looking Forward (South End Press: 1991) makes an admirable attempt to envision a non-market organization of life, but falls into the trap of book-keeper socialism. They divide social life into Production and Consumption councils--a bogus and arbitrary dualism. Is food produced or consumed? No doubt when corn is grown by farmers, it is produced; when eaten by a steel worker, it is consumed. Yet isn't food necessary for the production of steel? Isn't food as much a tool of humanity as the tractor? Isn't the steel worker's dwelling as necessary for her to be productive as it is in some sense space that she "consumes?" And how do you quantify a piece of music? Is it a luxury or a necessity to a vital and active intelligence?

Another assumption guiding economic thought that the Left uncritically accepts is that one only gives in order to receive. Malthus (the miserable economist who invented the bogus theory of "overpopulation") wrote that we must "consider man as he really is, inert, sluggish, and averse from labour unless compelled by necessity"--a restatement, by the way, of Newton's first law of motion. Socialist economists go to all kinds of lengths to devise a system whereby goods are justly allocated on the basis of work contributed. Even after the abolition of the market and the socialization of property, the surplus will still be meted out according to a form of wages: namely, notes certifying quantities of labor time. This still preserves work as compulsive, alienated activity, subordinating people to things--what's called "idolatry" in some contexts.

How does one measure the contribution of an individual to society? As soon as the the legitimacy of this question is granted, human society is insulted by subjecting the individual to a degrading and ultimately meaningless system of comparison. Feminists have pointed out the way our society systematically devalues occupations associated with women--i.e. housework, nursing, social work, teaching, cultural activities (not surprisingly, those that involve a degree of gift-giving)--while valorizing traditionally male-dominated professions such as banking and law. This invidious calculation is operative throughout the wage system. Is street-sweeping less essential to public health than the more prestigious and lucrative jobs of doctors? Where does one person's work lead off and another's begin--i.e., the professor who relies on his graduate students for suggestions and research? How could an aerospace designer realize his plans without a welder? Giving in order to get: the same alienated labor that reduces social life to a series of bargains between negotiators rather than relationships among equals.

Examples of non-alienated labor abound, even in our crazed market society: the passion of the artist who endures obscurity and poverty because she is guided by a pursuit more compelling than fame and money; scientists who endure ostracism and years of painstaking research for the beauty of discovery itself. Blood and organs are donated as a gift of life, even if the U.S. medical industry markets them for profit. We have all had the experience of doing a person a favor, helping someone in distress, and knowing that the pleasure that comes from the deed itself--not because we get some payment in return. In fact, it is an insult to be offered money for doing our good deed. I believe this gift-giving principle must be applied to everything we do in order to break the stranglehold of The Economy.

I'm not proposing that everybody work for free. Obviously, we are already overburdened by an excess of philanthropy--why else do we work for the enrichment of others who we never meet and who would just as soon nuke us? Nor do I want the rich to become more charitable, which is just a tactic by which they negotiate the class barrier. Instead, we should recreate society itself by abolishing the Economy.

"Time is money," goes the saying, and we are running out of both. Like time, money makes everything identical. Just as no moment is ever the same--no matter how many ten o'clocks, Tuesdays, Septembers, etc. occur--so no two things in a liberated society would ever be the same, no two activities commensurable. Measurement has its place, but its triumph over life itself in the form of prices must be re-assessed.

As the 19th century anarchist Wilhelm Weitling prophesized: "A time will come when...we shall light a vast fire with banknotes, bills of exchange, wills, tax registers, rent contracts and I.O.U.s and everyone will throw his purse into the fire." Let's stop looking to the Dismal Science for solutions and begin creating a science of pleasure, human enrichment and a new sociability.

--Mickey D.